Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Stolen Van Gogh “proof of life” pics circulate

Monday, June 29th, 2020

A “proof of life” picture of the Van Gogh painting stolen from a museum in March has emerged. The photograph shows the painting topped by a May 30th issue of the international edition of the New York Times on one side and a book on the other. The book is Meesterdief by Wilson Boldewijn, a biography of one of the art thieves who stole two paintings from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2002. A second photograph shows the label on the back of the painting.

(The choice of book is obviously pointed, the art crime version of a weird flex. One of the two paintings stolen in 2002 was Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, a different scene of the same church where Van Gogh’s father was minister. Both paintings were found outside of Naples in 2016 after having been passed around as currency in a Camorra organized crime network for years.)

The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in the Spring (1884) was stolen from the Singer Laren Museum outside Amsterdam in the early hours of Monday, March 30th, what would have been Van Gogh’s 167th birthday. The smash-and-grab raid targeted the painting which was on loan from the Groninger Museum. The thieves broke in through the glass door, took the painting and fled before the police could arrive.

These are almost certainly photographs of the authentic work. The image of the label on the back of the painting is particularly telling because as far as Andreas Blühm, Director of the Groninger Museum, knows, no photograph of the label has ever been published before.

The images were received by Arthur Brand, a private eye who specializes in retrieving lost art works. He is not naming his source, but he has extensive knowledge of and connections to the art crime underworld. He has seen more than these two pictures of the stolen painting, so it seems that the thieves are circulating these snapshots to find a buyer.

“In some cases when art is stolen, the thieves get nervous, they can’t get rid of it or they think the police is on their tail so they destroy it,” [Brand] told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “So these pictures show that we are dealing with professionals. So the painting is still alive, I wanted to say.”

Brand said he had shared the photos with police investigating the theft.

Police spokeswoman Laetitia Griffioen said the photos “are part of the investigation.” She declined further comment.

Professionals though they may be, they are not handling their cash cow with anything like appropriate care. From the photo, it looks like the painting is on a garbage bag and the newspaper and book are casually plopped on top of its unprotected surface. There is also a white mark in the bottom center just below the fence posts. It could be a scratch because the original painting was done on paper and later mounted on board.

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Stockholm museum will return stolen 16th-century painting to Poland

Wednesday, June 24th, 2020

After an appeal from the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage in Warsaw and a thorough investigation, the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm has formally recommended the repatriation of 16th century painting to Poland.

The Lamentation of Christ by the School of Lucas Cranach the Elder (ca. 1538) is believed to have originally belonged to the 12th century Lubiąż Abbey, about 35 miles northwest of Wrocław, the largest Cistercian abbey in the world. Lubiąż was part of the Holy Roman Empire when the painting was made, and part of Germany from 1871 until the end of World War II after which it became part of Poland along with most of Silesia. In 1880, the painting was acquired by what was then the Schlesische Museum der Bildenden Künste in Breslau (modern-day Wrocław), predecessor to the present-day Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu. It was lost after the war.

The painting was purchased for Nationalmuseum’s collections at auction in Mariefred in 1970, for SEK 4,000.It was sold by the estate of Sigfrid Häggberg. At this date, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was no suspicion that the painting could have been stolen; there were no illustrations of it in the available literature about Cranach, nor had the lists of evacuated objects ever been made public. The provenance information in Nationalmuseum’s inventory states that the painting belonged to Director Häggberg in Mariefred and was previously in Polish ownership.

Nationalmuseum and experts from Poland have now conducted a detailed review of the painting’s history and discovered information that was not previously available. The painting was on a list drawn up in November 1945, with objects that were evacuated from the former Schlesische Museum der Bildenden Künste in Breslau (Wroclaw) and transferred for storage in Kamenz (now Kamieniec Ząbkowick) in Poland. When Soviet troops left the occupied area at the end of February 1946, hundreds of paintings on the list were missing, including this one. Following the painting’s fate more closely is not possible until it appears in Mariefred, Sweden, where it belonged to the Warsaw-Swede Sigfrid Häggberg. During World War II, he was director of L M Ericsson’s two Polish subsidiaries. In 1942 he was arrested by the Gestapo and sentenced to death, along with three other Swedes, after being accused of helping the Polish resistance movement. Among other things, he had smuggled out documents revealing the Nazi atrocities aimed at both the Jewish and Polish peoples. His punishment was commuted to a life sentence and, after a special plea from King Gustaf V, Häggberg was released in 1944. After the war he returned to Poland to restart work at L M Ericsson. According to Häggberg’s family, he did not buy the painting but was taking care of it for an individual who had given it to him for safekeeping. This person then never returned.

It’s an unusual story for an artwork looted in World War II, as the man who spirited it out of the country appears to have done it on behalf of someone trying to protect it from being pillaged. It depends on who he was “taking care of it” for, I suppose.

The Nationalmuseum’s collection belongs to the country, so the final decision on repatriation belongs to the Swedish Government. Given the evidence that the last legal owner of The Lamentation of Christ was the Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu, it’s almost certain that Sweden’s Ministry of Culture will follow the Nationalmuseum’s recommended course of action and return to the painting to Poland.

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Hercules Segers motherlode online

Thursday, June 18th, 2020

Visionary printmaker of the Dutch Golden Age Hercules Pieterszoon Segers (ca. 1589 – ca. 1638) inspired artists whose names are much more famous than his today, most notably Rembrandt van Rijn who was an avid collector of Segers paintings and prints. Very few Segers works are known to survive today — 183 unique impressions from 53 plates and 18 paintings — and the Rijksmuseum has the largest single collection of them with 74 impressions, two oil sketches and one painting.

Segers’s prints are at the heart of the artist’s later fame. With an array of techniques whose identification has puzzled artists and scholars alike, he etched unusual colourful landscapes, seascapes, biblical scenes and other subjects. Rejecting the idea that prints from a single plate should all look the same, he produced impressions in varied colour schemes, on grounded paper or textiles, colouring his prints with the brush and altering his etching plates by adding lines in drypoint. Employing a variety of unusual techniques and materials, he turned each impression of his etchings into an individual work of art.

The collection formed the core of the landmark Segers retrospective exhibited at the Rijksmuseum in late 2016, early 2017 and subsequently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. That exhibition brought together almost all of the extant works known to exist today, including 110 prints and all 18 paintings. In preparing for the retrospective, researchers, scientists and art historians at the Rijksmuseum carried out an unprecedented in-depth study of Segers’ works. The study, which revolutionized understanding of his highly experimental techniques, was published in a new comprehensive oeuvre catalogue in 2017.

The Rijksmuseum has now made much of that information available for free in a new online collection catalogue. All of the museum’s Segers pieces can be viewed in the glorious high resolution to which the Rijksmuseum has made us accustomed with entries summarizing the results of the research and lending new insight into the artist’s process, materials and the dates of his works. The catalogue entries include all known information about the works from measurements to techniques to inscriptions and collectors’ marks usually found on the versos of prints. There are also links to works in the Rijksmuseum, other public collections and private ones that are connected in some way to the Segers prints.

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Freakishly large bead or Alice in Wonderland croquet ball?

Sunday, June 7th, 2020

From the annals of randomly-encountered treasures in museums, here is an ancient Egyptian faience ball of a hedgehog curled up in its iconic defensive posture, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art . It’s just over two inches in diameter and, I’m sure we can all agree, cute as hell. Its little snout, ears, paws and tail are all grouped together in relief on its spherical body which is peppered with black spots representing the spines.

The ball is hollow inside and a fine crack along the equator indicates it was made in two halves that were combined. The ball was pierced through before firing with a single pointed instrument like a skewer, leaving holes above and below the relief. The National Museum of Scotland has an almost identical hedgeball but it was pierced horizontally, leaving holes left and right of the relief.

Faience figurines of animals were thousands of years old by the time this little guy was made. They were figural and used as votive deposits at temples in the Early Dynastic Period (ca. 3150-2686 B.C.). That religious tradition expanded to their use as funerary furnishings in the 12th Dynasty (1991-1802 B.C.). The Met’s ball was originally dated to the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2050-1650 B.C.) when it entered the collection 30 years ago. Newer scholarship pushes it just on the other side of the boundary to the 18th Dynasty, 1550–1450 B.C., while the NMS still tentatively places theirs in the Middle Kingdom.

The spherical iteration is almost certainly not a votive deposit or funerary figurine. It’s not a figurine at all, in fact. Nobody is quite sure what it is. The holes suggest it may have been worn as a pendant, but they are not along the sphere’s central axis, and in the case of the vertical piercings of the Met’s hedgeball, a rope or chain threaded through them could not be worn around the neck because the hedgehog’s features would be rotated 90 degrees. Besides, two and a quarter inches in diameter is way oversized for a bead, even if was an amulet meant to protect the wearer.

Scholars initially hypothesized that it might be a rattle, but the holes are too small to put in small stones or whatever else would make the noise, and there are no known ancient Egyptian rattles that are spherical in shape. The piercing isn’t a function of the firing process because only one hole would be needed to prevent cracking. There is also evidence of wear and tear: the glaze at the upper edges of the holes on the Met’s ball is chipped.

So how was our hedgehog friend worn or used? To what end this cuteness?

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Life and Death in Pompeii on film

Thursday, May 21st, 2020

In 2013, the British Museum staged an exhibition dedicated to the daily lives of the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum and how they were snuffed out by the eruption of Vesuvius. Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum was a blockbuster, selling more than 50,000 advance tickets and drawing crowds of visitors flocking to see the more 250 artifacts from the British Museum’s collection and on loan from the Archaeological Superintendency of Naples and Pompeii. The show feature some iconic pieces — the fresco portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife, the “CAVE CANEM” mosaic of a guard dog from the House of Orpheus, the sculpture of Pan having sex with a goat, the plaster cast of a dog writhing in its final agony — as well as lesser known but no less remarkable survivors, like a carbonized cradle, a loaf of bread, a life-sized bronze hare mould used to make cakes or terrines.

A private tour of the show was broadcast in movie theaters at the time. The hour-and-a-half film walks viewers through the exhibition guided by curators and experts including Mary Beard and Giorgio Locatelli. It covers the history of the towns’ destruction, the last two days of their ancient existence

It’s got a sexual content warning because of the many explicit artifacts typifying Roman frankness about sexuality that were found at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Mary Beard discussing whether a third figure in a fresco of a couple in a reverse cowgirl posture was part of a threesome or an ignored slave or a voyeur is good clean fun, as far as I’m concerned, as is her discussion of the triple-phallus wind chime ( “phalluses to the power of x” “with bells on!”) and the one about the “more hardcore” Pan-goat statue.

Seven years later, the British Museum has uploaded the complete film to its YouTube channel. It’s one hour and 27 minutes long and even so not nearly long enough for me. They should have made it a mini-series. Pompeii Live is free to view, of course, but like so many of its brethren, the museum has been hard-hit by the extended closure, so if you’d like to help support it, donate here

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Little but luminous in Basel

Sunday, May 10th, 2020

The Kunstmuseum Basel reopens on Tuesday, May 12th, allowing visitors to enjoy a little-known aspect of Renaissance art: small-format stained glass paintings created by Old Masters like Hans Holbein the Younger. Very few of these works survive today, but for a brief period in the 16th century they were wildly popular in Switzerland and southern Germany, donated by organizations and prominent individuals to adorn civic buildings, monasteries, churches, universities and guildhalls.

Beyond its immediate artistic appeal, the genre is of great interest in both a historical and a sociocultural perspective. Stained glass paintings were commissioned by institutions such as the estates of the Old Swiss Confederacy (today’s cantons), monasteries, and guilds as well as individuals. Donating such a work was a common and widely recognized act of social communication, lending lasting expression to alliances, friendships, and honors. That is why virtually every stained glass painting prominently features the donor’s coat of arms. The imagery surrounding this central element varies widely and includes depictions of religious themes as well as personifications and allegories, representations of professions, and motifs and scenes from Swiss history.

The Kunstmuseum Basel has more than 20 of these rare stained glass paintings in its permanent collection, and close to 400 of the preparatory drawings used to create the glass pieces. For the Luminous Figures: Drawings and Stained Glass Paintings from Holbein to Ringler exhibition, curators selected 20 of the most significant paintings and 70 preparatory drawings. Other museums — the Victoria and Albert in London, the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, and the Schweizerisches Nationalmuseum, Zurich — loaned works for the exhibition as well.

On display are the earliest surviving preparatory drawing for a glass painting (dating to around 1470/80) and striking pen-and-ink prep drawings by Hans Holbein the Younger and other masters. The museum was able to pair up a few of the preparatory drawings with the finished glass paintings, bringing them back together again for the first time in five centuries.

As usual with museum exhibitions, there are a number of associated events on the calendar where people can learn more about stained glass in general and this very specific and localized expression of the medium. One extremely cool event really sets the “luminous figures” in their precise historical and cultural context. It’s a guided tour of Basel Town Hall (built between 1504 and 1514) and the Schützenhaus (the firing range built in the 1560s by Basel’s Riflemen guild that was in continuous use until 1899 and is now a restaurant that I very much want to patronize) which still have their original stained glass paintings in situ.

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Celebrate the raising of the Vasa

Thursday, April 30th, 2020

It’s been 59 years since the pristine wreck of Vasa, the Swedish warship commissioned by King Gustav II Adolf which sank less than a mile from dock on her maiden voyage on August 10th 1628, was salvaged from Stockholm bay. It  broke the surface of the waters on April 24th, 1961, where, floating on pontoons, sprayed constantly with harbour water, it was excavated for five months. For 27 years it was conserved at a temporary location at the Wasa Shipyard. In 1988 it moved into the Vasa Museum and ever since then has been one of Stockholm’s most visited tourist destinations with more than one million visitors each year.

As the museum is closed for the time being, you can celebrate the anniversary with some teletourism. Here is the Vasa Museum’s Director of Research Fred Hocker talking about the complex salvage operation that raised the Vasa while simultaneously giving us a tour of the ship.

Next up, Hocker’s guided tour of the king’s cabin, or rather, a replica of it.

Museum guide Lisa orchestra of carved wooden putti in steerage. I’m embarrassed to say this is the first explanation I’ve heard of why the space was called steerage and I appreciate that a term now synonymous with the cheapest, least comfortable passage possible described the antechamber of the king on the Vasa.

In this video museum Educational Officers Lotta Wiker and Emilie Börefeldt explain how the Vasa was raised, illustrated with models of various stages of the salvage.

That’s just the tip of the contact iceberg. The Vasa Museum broadcasts live streaming video  of tours, stories, concerts from the museum every weekday at 4:28 PM, ie, 16:28, the year the ship was launched to its immediate demise. The broadcasts are live on Instagram and are also uploaded to the museum’s Facebook page. English-language videos air on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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From the Met’s film vault

Saturday, April 25th, 2020

This year is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 150th anniversary. To celebrate their sesquicentennial, the Met has been uploading movies from their vast archive of films about art going back to the 1920s.

The Met’s Office of Cinema Works opened in 1922 when the moving image captured on film was less than 30 years old. The medium was still considered the cultural inferior to its cousin the so-called legitimate theater. The Met was one of the first museums to embrace its great education potential. The Office of Cinema Works produced films that would be screened first for museum members and then to visitors. It filmed the museum’s excavations in Egypt and made documentaries about the museum, objects in its collection, artist profiles, explanations of different artistic techniques.

Because the Office’s mission was educational, from its earliest days in 1922 the films it produced were made available for rent to other museums, schools and societies. The Met soon did brisk business in film distribution as well as production. They also pioneered the use of safety film. To be able to send their films to more screens and make them as easy and safe to use as possible, in 1928 they moved from the industry standard 35mm nitrate film to 16mm non-flammable acetate that could be screened with portable projectors.

The Office of Cinema Works was active through 1935, and its descendants at the museum continue to produce films about art well into the 2000s. Most of the 1,500 treasures in its climate-controlled vault have been in permanent retirement, however. Starting in January of this anniversary year, From the Vaults has been releasing a film from the archive every Friday, beginning, as is only right and fair on the Internet, with a film about cats.

Earlier this month, From the Vaults released a self-referential gem: The Hidden Talisman, a 1928 historical romance/ghost story that was filmed at the original Cloisters. The faux medieval setting is very apt to the drama. The first Cloisters was only in use for 24 years, from its opening in 1914 until the Met Cloisters as we know and love it today moved to its current location in 1938, so this film is a rare glimpse into a long-gone classic.

Here’s another great early one from 1924 about the Met’s Armor Galleries.

View the rest of the treasures from the Met’s film vaults on the museum’s YouTube channel.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring revealed Tuesday

Friday, April 24th, 2020

In 2018, the Mauritshuis museum performed an in-depth scientific examination of Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring (ca. 1665). The last time it had been thoroughly examined was during a 1994 conservation, and technology has grown by leaps and bounds since then. The goal of the Girl in the Spotlight project was to discover new information about the master’s brushstrokes and impasto, about his use of pigments, oils, canvas and other materials.

The research was conducted in public view in a specially-made glass enclosure in the museum’s Golden Room gallery. Over the course of two weeks, a team of specialists deployed state-of-the-art technology including MA-XRF scanning, optical coherence tomography and digital microscopy to analyze the painting. The project was documented in daily posts by lead conservator Abbie Vandivere on the outstanding Girl with a Blog, which is a wonderland of information about Vermeer, his most famous work and the latest conservation practices.

More than two years have passed since the project’s conclusion, and during that time researchers have published individual reports focusing on one particular aspect of Girl with a Pearl Earring in the journal Heritage Science. Now the full results of the technical examination have been published and the Mauritshuis is making a bit of a fanfare about it, putting up a placeholder for a web page dedicated to revealing the findings. On Tuesday, April 28th, the page will go live.

Meanwhile, if you’ve got a little time on your hands to do a deep dive into the nitty-gritty of one of the world’s most famous paintings, you can read all the previously published papers from the Girl in the Spotlight project leading up the final report. They each stand on their own so you can read whatever catches your eye, but they are intended to be read in the following order:

  1. From ‘Vermeer illuminated’ to ‘The Girl in the Spotlight’: approaches and methodologies for the scientific (re-)examination of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
  2. Revealing the painterly technique beneath the surface of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring using macro- and microscale imaging.
  3. Mapping the pigment distribution of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
  4. Comparison of three 3D imaging techniques for paintings, as applied to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
  5. Imaging secondary reaction products at the surface of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring by means of in situ macro X-ray powder diffraction scanning.
  6. Beauty is skin deep: The skin tones of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
  7. Out of the blue: Vermeer’s use of ultramarine in Girl with a Pearl Earring.
  8. Fading into the background: the dark space surrounding Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.

And the last but certainly not least of them: The Girl in the Spotlight: Vermeer at work, his materials and techniques in Girl with a Pearl Earring.

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Last-minute visit with Michelangelo

Sunday, April 19th, 2020

On February 25th, the Getty Center in Los Angeles opened a new exhibition, Michelangelo: Mind of the Master, dedicated to exploring Michelangelo’s  sculpture, painting and architecture as seen through 28 of his drawings. It was a huge success with more than 2,500 visitors a day, but less than three weeks later, the exhibition came to an abrupt end when the Getty had to close its doors when Los Angeles issued the Safer at Home order. 

Of the 28 drawings on display, 25 of them belong to the Teylers Museum which has owned them since 1790 when the museum was just six years old. This is the first time its complete set of Michelangelo drawings has gone on tour.

They were first assembled by Queen Christina of Sweden, a passionate collector of art with a particular taste for Renaissance Old Masters whose collection was sold after her death in 1689 to Livio Odescalchi, nephew of Pope Innocent XI. Livio died in 1713 and his heirs sold off Christina’s former collection, by then known the Odescalchi collection, to the Duke of Orléans, the King of Spain, the Vatican library and the National Gallery of Scotland. In 1788, Dutch diplomat, politician and art lover Willem Anne Lestevenon acquired 1700 Renaissance and Baroque drawings by the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael and Guercino from the Odescalchi collection for the Teylers Museum.

Michelangelo made sketches and drawings of all of his projects from anatomical studies for sculptures to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to the dome of St Peter’s, but he often burned his preparatory drawings. According to Vasari, Michelangelo never wanted to show his work, the process, the roughing. He was concerned people would steal his ideas and anyway he wanted only the refined finished product in public view. Out of an estimated 28,000 drawings he made in his long life as an artist, today only 600 survive.

But try as he might, Michelangelo could not keep future art historians and curators from exploring the work process of the master. What he considered imperfections are today considered a window into his mind and method. That’s what Michelangelo: Mind of the Master explores.

It was supposed to run through June 7th. With only hours to go before the Getty Center was shuttered until further notice, curator Julian Brooks hastily shot a series of videos of the works on display, describing their significance as he would to happy groups of visitors in the now eerily empty gallery. 

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